Lester R. Brown has been praised as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers,” and has been recognized as a founder of the global environmental movement. His new biography, Breaking New Ground (W.W. Norton & Company, 2013) traces his early days as a junior analyst at the USDA to his emergence as a pioneer environmentalist. This excerpt is from the first chapter, in which Brown recounts the formulation of his landmark study on global hunger and agricultural supply and demand.
On a cold evening in late December 1963, I arrived at the train station in Cheyenne, Wyoming, to head home to Washington, DC. My wife, Shirley, and her parents, along with our three-year-old son, Brian, were with me. After a week celebrating Christmas on her folks’ ranch, we decided that Shirley and Brian would stay with them for an additional week.
The first thing we saw as we entered the station was the January 6 issue of U.S. News & World Report. The cover story was “Why Hunger is to be the World’s No. 1 Problem.” Shirley and I were stunned. The four-page feature article summarized the principal findings of Man, Land and Food: Looking Ahead at World Food Needs, a study I wrote as a junior analyst in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Shirley’s parents did not know quite what to make of our reaction.
The study contained the first comprehensive projections of world food, population, and cropland to the end of the century. “For the first time,” U.S. News & World Report said, “a careful study of world food supplies has been matched with the facts of expanding world population. The conclusion: in most of the world, creeping hunger looms.” The magazine noted the threat posed by growing human numbers to future food security by quoting the study: “Man has scarcely begun to assess their long-term impact.”
On the train headed eastward, crossing Nebraska and then Iowa, I tried to imagine the effect of the study. It was a breakthrough, that was certain. Beyond that I could not visualize exactly how it would affect me personally, at the age of twenty-nine, or the role that it might play in the world. It was clear, however, that my supervisors could no longer think of me as just one of a group of thirty-two “Junior Professionals” in the Foreign Agriculture Service (FAS) of the USDA.
In Man, Land and Food I stated that India’s population was projected to expand by 187 million over the next fifteen years. During this period India would have to find a way to feed an added population equal to that of the United States. I concluded that “the old equilibrium between [births and deaths] has been destroyed, but a new equilibrium has not yet been developed. That the current disequilibrium cannot continue indefinitely is certain. Until a new balance is created, however, man must seek to accelerate growth in the supply of food to match the increase in numbers.”
The study highlighted the Soviet farm problems that were forcing Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to divert money from guns to butter. The centrally planned and managed farm sector was plagued with inefficiencies. During the 1930s, North American grain exports lagged behind those from Latin America and were barely equal to those of the Soviet Union. But during and after World War II, U.S. agriculture began to find itself. By 1960, the United States and Canada were together exporting 39 million tons of grain, already starting to dominate world grain trade. I projected that this would reach 94 million tons by the end of the century, making North America the world’s breadbasket. (In 2000, it turned out, the United States and Canada together exported over 100 million tons of grain.) My study took advantage of the 1958 U.N. population projections, the first to project population growth both by country and for the entire world to the end of the century, thus providing a glimpse of a future that no one had envisioned before.
The origins of Man, Land and Food provide some insight into how to succeed in a bureaucracy. When I joined the Asia Branch of the FAS on June 1, 1959, I was assigned the Rice Bowl countries. I was responsible for tracking agricultural developments in Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. My very first publication was a modest four-page agricultural circular on the rice situation in Burma.
As my supervisors realized that my interests and knowledge went beyond these few countries, they broadened my research and writing assignments. Next came “The Japanese Agricultural Economy,” a thirty-page monograph assessing Japan’s potential as a market for U.S. farm products. Shortly after that I was promoted to regional economist and produced a somewhat more ambitious monograph, “An Economic Analysis of Far Eastern Agriculture.”
By this point, two years in, I was pretty much on track, although I struggled early on trying to adjust to the bureaucracy. I had come from a farm where I was my own boss and spent almost all of my time out of doors. Now I was confined to an office dealing with a bureaucratic structure unlike anything I had known before.
Did I ever adjust totally? Probably not. I was always looking for small ways to challenge the establishment. One opportunity arose a few months after President Kennedy took office. In the transition from the Eisenhower administration, our division was upgraded and shifted from the FAS to the newly created Economic Research Service (ERS). In this transition, both the branch and assistant branch chief moved up one grade on the civil service scale. Until then, only our branch chief qualified for office carpeting. But after the upgrade, the assistant branch chief also qualified. They could then carpet both offices and the shared space occupied by their secretaries. As the new carpet was being installed, the nearly new existing carpet in the office of our branch chief was removed, rolled up, and left in the hall.
Sensing an opportunity, I approached my officemates, both of whom were also junior professionals, and said, “Why don’t we wait until lunchtime and then get that carpet and install it in our office? We’ll explain that we feared it would be discarded and didn’t want to see it wasted.” One of my officemates, Bill Hall, would have nothing to do with it and went to the library to work. The other, Stuart Lerner, was taken with the idea. So when the workers were at lunch, the two of us dragged the carpet to our office and proceeded to move the three desks and several filing cabinets around until we had it appropriately placed and well anchored.
Late that afternoon when the workers were preparing to leave, they took inventory and realized there was a piece of carpet missing. Someone tipped them off. When they came to our office they calmly explained that the carpet would not be discarded but needed to go back to Central Inventory. Apparently there was a point system. You had to be a senior official to get carpeting and we didn’t even register on their eligibility scale. “Well,” we said, “we’re very busy right now, working on a deadline, and can’t be interrupted.” Knowing that would not hold them for long, Stuart and I made sure that one or the other of us was in the office from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day, literally sitting on the carpet, while the workers were in the building. After a couple of weeks they gave up. Now we were important!
Although my official responsibilities were in the Asia branch, my personal goal from day 1 at the USDA was to get to know world agriculture. I wanted to be the department’s leading authority on the subject.
After two years at the USDA I took a nine-month academic leave in 1961–62 to work on a master’s in public administration at the Littauer School of Public Administration, now the Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard. This was an intense program of courses, mostly in economics. By far my favorite course was the graduate seminar in economic development. My term paper was entitled “Agricultural Diversification and Economic Development in Thailand.” Perhaps even more important than the courses I took were the other students I got to talk with and know in the Littauer building coffee lounge and the Harkness Commons, a cafeteria where graduate students gathered for meals.
Upon my return to the FAS at the end of May 1962, Quentin West, our very progressive branch chief, called me in to discuss an idea for a new project. He said that we needed some long-term supply and demand projections for Asian agriculture and he wanted me to do them. I agreed that this would be useful, but noted that it is impossible to project import and export trends for a region in isolation. If you do not know the conditions elsewhere in the world, you will not know with certainty whether a given commodity will be flowing into or out of the region. After going back and forth on this for a while, the meeting came to an end.
A week or so later, Quentin again called me in and tried to make the case that we could do the region by itself. I replied that this approach would not work. A few days later, I was called in yet again. This time he changed the question: “Could you do agricultural supply and demand projections for the world?” “Yes,” I said, without hesitation. Quentin, who had a PhD in economics from Cornell, asked if I could do it in six months—that is, by the end of 1962. Again, I said yes.
I went to work day and night with strong support from our senior statistical clerk, Edith Allen, who gathered and organized the data. Early in this process I devised a world grain model, with the world divided into seven geographic areas, as the framework for the study. To save time, I frequently spent the night at the office, working until 1 or 2 a.m. and then sleeping until 6 a.m. Since there was no comfortable place in my office to sleep, I would go down the hall to the office of the administrator, Nate Koffsky, and—unbeknownst to him—sleep on his leather couch. My great fear was that one day I would oversleep and he would discover me. Although Nate was a friend and a remarkably good-natured guy, I did not relish the prospect of being found asleep on his couch. Fortunately, it never happened.
In late December, I presented Quentin with a manuscript. He reviewed it and made a few minor suggestions. I reworked it and within a few days everything was wrapped up and ready to go. After a final read, Quentin sent the manuscript to our division director, Wilhelm Anderson, to forward it for publication. That’s when the road got rough.
Wilhelm, someone for whom I had a lot of respect and affection, was—there is no other way to say it—flabbergasted. He called Quentin into his office and said he could not approve my manuscript for publication. “If I send it forward, every branch chief in our division will be on my back. I’ll have a revolution on my hands. You have done a study covering their regions that they were not consulted on and did not even know about.”
By then I felt the only option was to look for a commercial publisher. But before I could do that, Wilhelm summoned Quentin into his office again and said, “I am going on vacation in a few weeks and will appoint you acting division director. If you then want to approve this study and forward it for publication, it’s your problem.”
Quentin could not have been more pleased. He sent it forward during his first day. But instead of following a direct line to the Government Printing Office, those above the division level thought it needed additional clearances because of its sheer scope and also because it discussed population—something no one talked about in government in those days. In addition, it was written by a little-known junior staffer.
Although it took only six months to research and write the study, it took some nine months to get it cleared. It was finally approved for publication by John Schnittker, then leader of the staff economics group. John himself told me about this final crucial step only a few years ago: He had made a conscious decision not to send the report to the secretary before publication.
Once it had been cleared for printing, I was not willing to rely solely on the Office of Information to publicize the findings and decided to do further outreach of my own. Because U.S. News & World Report was much more prone to using graphics and numbers than other weekly news magazines. I brashly called David Lawrence, its founder-editor. I did not get through to him but was connected to John Howard, an agricultural reporter.
I described the study and offered to share the contents with him. John was interested and came by the office where I had one of the seven carbon copies, bound in a three-ring binder, replete with graphs and tables. We went through it and after talking about it at some length, he said, “I would like to go back and discuss this with my editor.” A couple of weeks later, John and his editor, Grant Salisbury, came to my office to discuss the study. It was October 1963. They indicated that they were going to do something with it.
They began to work on an article and scheduled it for release in late November. Then came the tragic assassination of President Kennedy. The issue in which they were going to introduce Man, Land and Food was of course shelved and replaced by one addressing the questions generated by the heartbreaking and abrupt loss of the president. The next few issues, as well, failed to mention the study. I assumed it would never make it into the magazine. Thus I was amazed to see it in the January 6, 1964, issue at the train station. While the study reshaped how we thought about the future, it also jump-started my career.
Man, Land and Food generated a raft of letters, including a highly complimentary one from my thesis adviser at the University of Maryland, Clifford C. Taylor. The letter I treasured most was from Henry A. Wallace, former secretary of agriculture and vice president under Franklin Roosevelt. He congratulated me on the study, discussed the future of technology in expanding agricultural production, and then went on to describe his current project of breeding strawberries on Farvue Farm, his home in New York State. In retirement, he had returned to the plant breeding he started with corn in the 1920s that led him to establish the Pioneer Hi-Bred Seed Company and the commercial hybridization of corn in the United States.
When I got back from Wyoming, I was invited to meet with Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman, who was intrigued with the report and immensely pleased that a study from his department was getting so much attention. He was also perplexed: He did not know anything about the study because it had never appeared on a plan of work. It was never budgeted. As far as the bureaucracy was concerned, it did not exist.
Above all, Freeman seemed intensely curious about a person who would individually undertake such a demanding analysis. We hit it off from the beginning and in a short time he created a new position on his staff for me.
Exactly where this experience would take me was not then clear, but one thing was certain: I had discovered in myself a capacity for breaking new ground in thinking about and projecting the future. And I had done it within an interdisciplinary analytical framework, incorporating agronomy, economics, and demography. This systemic approach, a distinctive personal style, would mark every book or article I would ever write. And it would shape each of the two research institutes I would later launch.Reprinted with permission from Breaking New Ground: A Personal History by Lester R. Brown and published by W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.